Through these forays, these agencies have discovered that social networking sites also proffer a dark side, where in the shadows, predators lurk and illegal acts are committed.
"I don't think kids realize the degree to which their personal information is public," says Keith Durkin, a criminologist at Ohio Northern University who has studied the Internet and deviant behavior for more than a decade. "They just think their buddies are reading their MySpace; they don't realize creeps examine it as well.
"The thing that scares me is that part of being a young person is finding your identity and pushing your boundaries a little bit, and the Internet appears safe for them to do that," he continues. "But it's not — it's just not."
The power of online data
In the world of law enforcement, the phrase "Information is knowledge and knowledge is power" reigns true. MySpace offers cops a new resource to learn "who's who" among the criminal element in their communities and illegal happenings among area teens. "Cop work is a lot of information," Weaver says. "And MySpace offers tons of that."
All law enforcement should have access to MySpace, agrees Wistocki, who notes his department encounters one to two cases a week from MySpace leads. Unfortunately, he says, some agencies still resist employing these sites as investigative tools. Officers in one agency once boasted to him their community didn't have an online-crime problem. That same department later confronted a case where a 13-year-old girl transmitted nude pictures of herself to a sex offender. Yet, officials in this organization still refused Wistocki's offer to assist.
"But law enforcement agencies must have this kind of expertise," he stresses. "It's the wave of the future."
Wistocki maintains three MySpace accounts — one as an officer, another as a young girl and a third as a teenage boy. If predators want to connect, they send him a message — he doesn't go after them — and then Wistocki lies in wait to see where the offender wants to take the relationship.
In a recent case of his, a 13-year-old girl believed she was corresponding with an 18-year-old African-American male model, whose father counted Donald Trump among his friends. The predator solicited the teen's nude pictures to "help" her land a modeling contract. This action led to cyber sex and further requests for unsavory pictures. By teaming with the FBI, the veteran officer determined the individual, a registered sex offender, lived in the basement of a Salt Lake City, Utah, Cyber café. He assumed the girl's identity to help the FBI catch him in the act.
Networking with teens
Predators are not the only reason law enforcement should plug in to online social networks. Monitoring local Web postings conveys a lot about what's going down in the community. Weaver recommends juvenile officers search MySpace by high school name — though searches by name, screen name and e-mail also are possible — to pinpoint area teens logged in. "I can pull up 400 kids' sites in 5 seconds," he says. In MySpace's "Browse" section, authorities also can query by location, age, interest, body type, education, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. In order to search individuals under the age of 18, authorities must log in as being between the ages of 14 and 18.
A wealth of intel can be uncovered this way. "It seems a lot of common sense and inhibitions disappear on MySpace," he says. "They wouldn't walk around in public with their bong, but teens think they can put a picture of that on MySpace and it's OK."
These records arm investigators with another piece of the investigative and community policing puzzle. The Placer County Sheriff's Department's Youth and Community Services Unit counts educating kids about drugs and other social issues among its primary goals. When their online ventures uncover drug information in blogs or images, officers question the teens involved about their drug usage.
"We can start an investigation right there," he says.